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Thirsty work: searching for water in meteorites

Posted by Ashley J King on Jun 18, 2014 2:16:39 PM

If you’ve read Jenny’s post you’ll be familiar with our research group. This week I’m going to tell you a bit about my job - I’m Ashley, a research scientist at the Museum investigating water in meteorites.


We all know that water is vital to sustaining life on Earth, but where did it come from? One suggestion is that it arrived here from asteroids and comets early in the Earth’s history. Meteorites can contain nearly 20% water and we study these to try and better understand the history of water in the solar system.


Recently, a group of us visited the Diamond Light Source (DLS) to carry out experiments on some meteorites. Diamond is the UK’s synchrotron facility and is used by many different scientists to study anything from dinosaur bones to new medicines. It works by accelerating electrons close to the speed of light to produce bright beams of electromagnetic radiation. These beams can be up to 10 million times brighter than the Sun.



Here I am using the data collected to make a map of water-bearing minerals in the Murchison meteorite.


During our visit we used a beam of infrared light. Infrared light can be used for many things (like controlling your TV using a remote control); we used it to map the location of water in meteorites. We focused the beam to a very small spot so that we could study the meteorites on a very small scale.



Nat keeps the infra-red detector cold by topping it up with liquid nitrogen. This had to be done every 7 hours.


Synchrotrons are now becoming a very popular choice for scientists carrying out experiments. They operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, they can be set up to carry out lots of different experiments and they generate huge amounts of data in a very short time. This means that synchrotrons are used to study some of the most important topics in science. Unfortunately it also means that the time for your experiment is limited and you often have to work for several days with very little sleep, which has been known to lead to the occasional nap on job!



Searching for water in meteorites is hard work…

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